Assistant ANDY Editor
It is probably unreasonable to expect major change from a TV show once it has been on the air for several decades. After all, the producers are not going to add a laugh track to National Geographic, or a rapping grandmother to Meet the Press.
Nevertheless, it seemed possible that the recent season premiere of Saturday Night Live could mark a meaningful shakeup in the show’s 39 year history. Three of SNL’s most popular and long-running players (Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen) departed at the end of last season, and Seth Meyers relinquished the head writing position that he has held since 2006.
Unfortunately, any hopes for a reinvention were dashed even before the first obligatory game show parody. SNL remains as stubbornly mediocre as ever.
First of all, the cast still doesn’t look representative of the people you would expect to see walking down the street outside SNL’s New York studio. To replenish his ensemble, series-creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels hired five virtually indistinguishable white guys and one woman. Of course, new cast members should be hired based on their abilities, not their race. It just seems hard to believe that Michaels’ nationwide talent search yielded five performers who can only be told apart by their haircuts.
The musical performances on the premiere were also typically thin sounding and poorly mixed. Arcade Fire debuted a hypnotic new track from their upcoming album, Reflektor. Yet, it sometimes seemed as if all the instruments were being played from inside the same glass booth where band member Régine Chassagne was briefly imprisoned.
Even the sequencing of sketches felt particularly routine. Jay Pharoah played President Obama in the customary ripped-from-the-headlines cold open, before disappearing for the remainder of the episode (another example of the show’s diversity problem). Then, as usual, all the strangest sketches got dumped after 12:30 AM, by which time the writers must assume most of the audience is asleep.
Despite all these flaws and missed opportunities, however, I still plan on watching SNL regularly this season, as I have for many years. Most weeks I find SNL disappointing. But I will always love the idea of SNL.
To me, there is something irresistibly compelling and romantic about the very notion of a live sketch series. I love the idea that every week there is a madcap team of writers crammed in a room together, feverishly pitching taxidermy jokes and arguing about whether they can say “toe blasting” on television. Indeed, this concept is so appealing that it served as the basic premise of 30 Rock for seven seasons. Saturday after Saturday, my fantasy about the fun and excitement involved in making SNL overwhelms my frustrations with the actual content of each episode.
Michaels himself even hinted at this appeal in a recent New York Times interview. “I think there’s something about what it’s trying to be,” he said. Even though, he admitted, “It will never get there.”
I am not merely trying to justify a guilty pleasure. Indeed, I think that this same distinction between concept and execution can be applied to all entertainment. It is possible to savour the idea and creative process behind a piece of pop culture, even if the final form falls short of that potential.
It may take SNL another 39 seasons before the sketches match the brilliance and promise of the show’s concept. Even so, I will keep staying up late on Saturday night until they do.